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April 1, 2014, 5:06 PM

And Now For Something Completely Different...

And now for something completely different…

Some of you may recognize that as the tagline which began each episode of the classic (and decidedly different) British comedy series from the 1970s:  Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

For those of you not familiar with this exercise in oddball British humor, I will direct you to a couple of their classic sketches.

This one literally inspired the use of the word “spam” to mean unwanted, constantly repeated ads on the internet…

This one inspired a t-shirt you may sometimes see me wear, which says, “The Spanish Inquisition, Expected by No One Since 1970”  (That was the year the sketch first aired.)

It strikes me that the words, “And now for something completely different…” make a fitting introduction to the story of the Resurrection.

I know there are cynics and skeptics who will immediately respond that the Resurrection is a joke and a bad one…some kind of fraud or fantasy that a man who was well and truly massacred by the Romans (who knew a thing or two about efficiently massacring folks) was brought back to life.

We live in a world where some people think Elvis is still alive and that the moon landings were faked. But most of us are not so deluded.  So why shouldn’t we believe that Jesus is as dead as anyone else from that era?  It certainly seems a far less preposterous notion than the idea he was raised from the grave.

Besides, even the Gospels don’t agree on what happened.  Not one of their accounts entirely agrees with any of the others.

I would point out that hundreds of people witnessed the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and fifty years later, there are still countless versions of what “really happened” that day.  Events that surprise and shock, have a way of rattling the systems of even the calmest souls and the keenest eyes.  Frankly, I would find it more than a little suspicious if all the accounts did exactly agree.  That would come across as a bit too rehearsed.  Reality, and our reporting on reality, tends to be a lot messier.  But, despite the many different perceptions of what happened, the witnesses to the JFK assassination agreed that he was dead, and witnesses to the resurrection agreed Jesus wasn’t.

In the case of Jesus, this was an extraordinarily dangerous claim for them to make.

If they had simply said, “Jesus’ spirit lives!  It’s like he is still alive with us!” there would have been all sorts of people who would have understood that and not been scandalized by it.  We say that about all sorts of beloved and departed figures.

But, saying that Jesus was literally raised from death by God, was a dangerous, and potentially lethal proclamation.  He had been killed by a collusion between the religious and political establishments.  To claim that God had revived him in defiance of their claims to authority and power, was to engage in a profoundly subversive act.  You could be arrested for it.  You could be whipped to within an inch or your life for it.  You could be sent into slavery for it.  You could die for it.

Why not just say it was “as though” he had been raised, when that could spare you danger and death?

But, there were people who insisted that he HAD been raised from death, even at the cost of their lives.

These days, we see some despicable scammers, blingy bishops, and money-grubbing televangelists who pad their bank accounts, claiming that Jeeeeeesus is gonna make you rich, if only you send them your money.  But, back in the day, his followers were poor and among the most oppressed and powerless in their society.  Following him didn’t make them rich (as the world counts wealth) or powerful, and it tended to make them less than popular with the people who were.

But, still, they insisted he had broken death.

People point to him creating an expectation that he would rise, before he was killed, and they claim it generated a sort of group fantasy that he had somehow done so.  They note that the Jews believed in resurrection before Jesus ever showed up, and that helped set that stage for his desolated disciples to engage in a mass delusion, as a way to buffer their grief.

Actually, many Jews did NOT believe in resurrection or any kind of afterlife.  The Sadducees, didn’t.  The Pharisees did, but they did not expect the Messiah to be crucified, or to be raised.  Resurrection was to be a mass event they expected to take place at the end of the world.

Jesus violated all those expectations.  He wasn’t what anyone had expected.

There are other surprising twists in the Easter story which defy expectation and easy explanation.  But hey, I’m not going to give away all my preaching materials here!

Whatever happened, it changed the world in an unexpected way, using the most unlikely characters.

I suspect that when the stone rolled away that impossible morning, the first sound that echoed from the broken grave was…laughter.

And while the Scriptures don’t record what he may have said as he emerged, I can easily image the Risen One saying, maybe with a bit of a giggle, “And now for something completely different!”

February 4, 2014, 11:34 AM

Getting Messy

I’m a fan of “messy” churches.

I don’t mean that they have to be slovenly to suit me.  But, I would rather have a church that is a little frayed around the edges because it is getting lots of use, than to have one that is neat, tidy, and usually empty.

At one church I served, we had a pre-school program which made use of our basement.  A sizable faction of church members (none of whom had young children) complained constantly and bitterly about “the mess” and the inconvenience of having to accommodate this program.  Actually, the workers did a good job of cleaning up after themselves, but the place wasn’t as pristine as when there were no children in it during the week.

These same people complained about “strangers” invading their space.  The kids didn’t come from families who attended their church.  But, I noted that not a single one of the complainers ever made any effort to get to know those children or their parents, or to show them anything approximating hospitality.  In fact, at times, they were downright rude.  They certainly never invited them to be part of the church.

Now, not everyone was inhospitable to them.  But those who were, left such a sour impression, that the people who were involved with the pre-school never set foot in that church, once the school year was over.

I couldn’t blame them.  To be honest, after what I witnessed, I didn’t want to be there, either!

Of course, these same people worried and fretted over the fact that their tiny church was growing steadily older and tinier.  They kept saying they wanted, “new blood.”  But they wanted it to flow in the same old veins.  They were unwilling to make any real changes to their routines or accept the messiness that would come with new and different people.

If our church wishes to grow…and more importantly, if we wish to share the Good News of God’s love…we are going to have to get messy.  We are going to need to reach out and welcome people who are in distress and crisis, and who are often “high-maintenance.”

Evangelism is NOT primarily about parking more butts in our pews.  It is about helping people experience the grace of God in the times when they most need it.  That means reaching people who are “strangers” to us and often to the Gospel.  It means reaching outside the walls of a place many of them regard as alien, and possibly hostile, territory.

They often consider it hostile because they don’t fit the stereotypes both they…and too many Christians…have about who really belongs and is welcome in church.

This is not easy work.  But Jesus didn’t say it would be.  He just noted that, like a doctor, he didn’t come for the well, but for the sick and struggling.

As we think and pray about what it means to be followers of Jesus, I hope we will realize that it is a messy enterprise, and that we will accept that inescapable fact, so that we will be open to the very people for whom he came, in the first place.

I submit that a messy church is one which has truly answered the call of Christ.

January 10, 2014, 3:11 PM

The Party Is Just Getting Started...

Over the last few years, we have heard a lot about the “War on Christmas.”

The claim is that the “war” is about taking Christ out of Christmas by having store clerks say, “Happy Holidays,” instead of, “Merry Christmas.”  Evidently, Hannukah is to be dismissed.  And let’s not get started about Kwanzaa…

The only reason people are going to be in the stores is, Jesus.

Yeah, right.

Mike Slaughter, pastor of the vibrant Ginghamsburg UMC  <> has written a book entitled, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday.”  He even means that for the people who were born on December 25.

He notes that Christmas has degenerated into a hyperactive exercise in rampant materialism, which bears little resemblance to a celebration of God assuming the flesh of a homeless peasant child in order to bring hope to the poor, the oppressed, and the dispossessed by first identifying with them.

Now, it’s about the swag…the stuff…the gifts we want…and who deserves to get gifts from us.

It used to be that Advent was the season in which people prepared for the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  Now, the Commercial Christmas season starts right after Halloween and we are subjected to a steady ratcheting up of the campaigns to get us to buy stuff, until Dec. 25.

The way things are going…I expect that the stores will be open on Christmas Day, before long. 

Like the Corleones said in The Godfather, “It’s just business.”

Slaughter’s answer to this trend has been to challenge his church members to spend as much on missions to help the poor as they do on Christmas presents for each other.  He sees that as an appropriate gift for Jesus.

Following that approach, his church has raised funds to build schools and drill water wells in Africa, and support several ministries to the needy in his Ohio community.

I also have an idea, that might help to reclaim Christmas…

The twelve days of Christmas come between December 25 and January 6, which is Epiphany.

By the end of that period, the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy has died, and the malls have moved on to their pre-Valentine’s Day promotions.

Sadly, too many churches follow the examples of the malls, and quickly return to “business as usual.”

But, what if we decided to continue celebrating each day of Christmas, even after much of the world has moved on?  What if we did it by finding ways to mark each of those twelve days with some kind of special activity that would benefit the poor, the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned and the grieving?  What if we invited non-churchgoers to come an share in celebrations that involved good food and friendly fellowship?

What if we told the world, “It’s not over!  It’s just begun!”

In fact, I would hope that the twelve days would mark the launch of new ministries which would continue throughout the year.  I would hope that churches of various denominations would join together…at least during those twelve days…to do some of this work and to share in celebration.

The Real War on Christmas is the transformation of a holy season in which we are called to remember with gladness and gratitude that God loves the least of us, into an orgy a hyper-consumption that tramples over so many wounded souls on its way to the store.  I would like to see us reclaim its true meaning by reminding ourselves, and the world, that Christmas doesn’t end when the stores close.

I plan to take this up with other clergy and church leaders.  Maybe by next Christmas, we can do something special to remind the world that if Jesus really is the reason for the season, then we need to let people know the party is just getting started!

December 12, 2013, 11:00 AM

Wishful Thinking

This blog entry is part of a series.  You might want to start with the first one (at the bottom of the page) and work your way up!  But, it can also stand alone, if you're not up to that much reading!

What creates hope?

   I would suggest it is closely tied to faith.

   Skeptics like to dismiss faith as something which is essentially groundless and spun from nothing but unsubstantiated fantasy.

   The truth is that faith is anchored in experience and evidence.  We don’t believe for no reason.  Faith is anchored in experiences that lead us to take what we have experienced to the next level.

    I daresay that most of us have faith that the sun will not go nova and incinerate the earth, later today.  Our evidence is that it hasn’t happened so far, and based on our understanding of physics (which is limited).  But, just because it hasn’t happened, does not mean it can’t happen, today.  And, almost every day, we make new discoveries about astrophysics which show us that things we thought we knew, weren’t quite as accurate as we thought.  But we have faith that it won’t happen.  We hope it won’t happen.

    Hope is a somewhat more nebulous form of faith.  Faith can be seen as confidence that a specific thing is true, or will become true.  Hope has a lesser degree of confidence, and may be less specific.

   Hebrews 11:1 states:  Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

   I can hope something is true, without having a great deal of personal investment in it.  For instance, I can hope that a skydiver’s parachute will open.  But if I am the skydiver in question, I’m not going out the door without considerable confidence that it will do so!

   Having been a skydiver, I appreciate the difference!

   My faith was anchored in the fact that the vast majority of times, parachutes do work, and that the man who packed mine had done so successfully on numerous previous occasions.  Did that constitute an ironclad guarantee?  Nope.  But, it was enough for me to have faith.

    Faith is hope with skin in the game.

    Hope is the first step toward faith.

    The story of Jesus is one of hope, in the midst of tragedy.  A good man is crushed by the forces of the world.  The religious establishment, the political establishment, the legal system, and even the people, all turn against him, despite his goodness.  In a very real sense, their judgment of him becomes a judgment of us.  That the world turns against such a person says that we are deeply broken, and not very capable of saving ourselves from ourselves.

   So, there he is…dead and presumably gone.

   But then, something astonishing happens. Again, the skeptics pooh-pooh it, because, such a thing has never been seen.  They write it off as either a cynical effort of outright fraud by religious zealots, or some kind of delusion caused by wishful thinking.

    One of my favorite authors is Frederick Buechner. He has a book entitled, Wishful Thinking, in which he observes… Christianity is mainly wishful thinking. .. Dreams are wishful thinking.  Children playing at being grown-ups is wishful thinking.  Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking, Sometimes, wishing is the wings the truth comse true on.  Sometimes, the truth is what sets us wishing for it.

   The early church proclaimed, in spite of all the claims to the contrary, that “Christ is risen!  The Crucified One lives!”

   They could offer no absolute proof of this fantastic proclamation, other than themselves and their changed lives.

   There have been countless messianic wannabes throughout history.  Most flared for a few moments and then burned out, essentially forgotten.  A few others, like Jim Jones, David Koresh, etc, ended up making perverse history, taking all sorts of innocent souls with them as they crashed and burned.

    None had followers who made the claims that Jesus’ followers did.  None have had his staying power.  A power that is grounded in his ability to transform lives.

   The secular historian Michael Grant, in his book, Jesus:  An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, is not able to make the leap to faith in Jesus that would make him a Christian.  But, eve with his doubts, he finds cause for hope.  He writes:  “…that such an overwhelming, massive achievement could be, has been, performed by a single individual – and has been performed, moreover, in spite of adamant, crushing opposition from those around him – was and permanently remains the most heartening thing that has ever happened to the human race.

   Even the doubter can find cause for hope in the story of Jesus.

   That hope is the beginning of faith.

   And, faith is what dares to make hope become reality.

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